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Verizon gaffe lets customer details slip

Spreadsheet with limited data on more than 5,000 wireless subscribers was accidentally e-mailed to other customers.

Verizon Wireless this week accidentally distributed a file with limited details on more than 5,000 customers outside the company, potentially giving identity thieves a toehold.

The Microsoft Excel spreadsheet file was e-mailed on Monday and includes names, e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers and cell phone models of 5,210 Verizon Wireless customers, going by a copy of the file obtained by CNET All of the customers have Motorola Razr phones, according to the spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet was inadvertently sent to about 1,800 people, all Verizon Wireless subscribers, according to a follow-up e-mail apologizing for the gaffe that the mobile carrier sent on Thursday. The Excel file was attached to an ad for a Bluetooth wireless headset, instead of the electronic order form that was supposed to be sent.

"Verizon Wireless takes the security, confidentiality and integrity of your personal information very seriously, and we deeply regret this error," the company said in the Thursday e-mail. It said that it has already implemented additional quality control procedures and process improvements to prevent a re-occurrence.

A Verizon Wireless representative confirmed the incident, but could not immediately provide specific details when reached Friday afternoon.

The information in the document is limited and does not immediately expose those listed to fraud, the company said in its apology. Yet it recommends that people affected review their bills more carefully and add a password to their account by calling 1-866-861-5096.

While the privacy breach in no way makes identity theft automatic, it helps put a clever fraudster in the starting blocks, said James Van Dyke, the principal analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research in Pleasanton, Calif., which tracks identity fraud.

"To commit ID fraud, you must do several things well. This just makes the job slightly easier," he said. For example, with this list in hand, a fraudster could call the listed numbers, pretend to be a Verizon Wireless representative and ask the subscriber for information to update the account.

One Verizon Wireless customer whose details were included in the file said he was upset about the flap. "Someone just got incredibly careless sending out a sales e-mail," said Frank Donley of Fresno, Calif. "With all the privacy incidents you read about recently, I should feel relieved that my credit card number, Social Security number or some other secure info wasn't released."